It is a bitter irony that the last article Stanislav Markelov published on the website of the Rule of Law Institute (which he founded and headed) was a reflection on the official, media, and public reactions to two recent deaths in two different countries—the death of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II (December 5, 2008) and the murder of the Greek teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulous (December 6, 2008), which touched off a wave of riots, demonstrations, and strikes that still has not ended.
It cannot be said that in Russia there has been no reaction to Markelov’s murder. TV channels are reporting it, newspapers are writing about it, bloggers are arguing about it. Parts of the Russian establishment have even expressed their outrage, although the President and Prime Minister, true to form, remain silent.
But what about “spontaneous outpourings of public grief and outrage”? The day after the murders of Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a candle and flowers vigil at the site of the crimes was attended by hundreds in Moscow. Later in the day, Moscow antifa had to break out of an OMON encirclement before they could carry out their memorial march in downtown Moscow; according to reports, several dozen of the hundred some marchers were detained by police. That same evening in Petersburg, the hundred or so people who showed to up at the gathering site of a spontaneously organized march were also greeted by a heavy police presence. The marchers had to negotiate with police before they were allowed to march to the Field of Mars, which in 1917 was made into a memorial to Victims of the Revolution. By agreement with the police, the marchers were not allowed to carry lighted candles or pictures of the newest victims of Russia’s recent wave of political terror. The police explained that failure to honor this agreement would qualify the march as an (unsanctioned political) “action.” And God forbid that any passersby en route would get the idea, however meekly expressed, that it is okay to be publicly, collectively at odds with how the powers that be and their enforcers dispense with dissidents, leftist lawyers, journalists, activists, and the ordinary people who make common cause with them.
Yesterday, in Novosibirsk, a group of twenty or so antifa members were not dispersed by the police when they attempted to march in memory of Stanislav and Anastasia towards the downtown. Instead, they were attacked by a group of skinheads armed with sticks and billy clubs. As reported on the Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) website, two of the marchers were seriously injured in the fight that ensued.
Stanislav Markelov’s funeral will be held today (January 23) at the Ostankino Cemetery in Moscow. It is pointless and, perhaps, inappropriate to speculate beforehand about what kind of demonstration of public grief will be seen there and what it might mean. However, I can’t help remembering that, in a more hopeful time not so long ago, the deaths of such very different heroes of perestroika as dissident Andrei Sakharov, Father Alexander Men, and TV journalist Vladislav Listyev (the latter two were murdered) were in fact occasions for spontaneous, mass outpourings of public grief and outrage. As a veteran Petersburg dissident recalled to my wife during the memorial march there on Tuesday, after Sakharov’s death a hundred thousand people marched down Nevsky and onto Palace Square.
That was a different world and, thus, those were different deaths. Nowadays, the streets are reserved for traffic jams and shoppers: when denying permits for marches, the authorities quite often cite inconvenience to motorists and consumers as the reason. In the new era of vigorously enforced “stability,” the causes that Stanislav Markelov promoted and defended—justice for victims of war crimes, justice for victims of ne0-Nazi violence, justice for social and political activists—are deeply unpopular, objects of police surveillance and political ridicule, targets of lethal violence.
The murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova should have ignited another Greece, just as the misery, violence, corruption, and repression of the last ten years (and more) should have set off a thousand Greeces. But in the new “cold” civil war in Russia, people with a vision of a better way are picked off one by one, while most of the population looks on (or doesn’t) in silence.
In Russia and Europe, people not only live differently, they also die differently. In any case, absolutely different deaths are accorded public significance, and the aftermaths of these tragedies are likewise nearly the opposite. So as not to speak in riddles, I propose that you simply turn on the TV and compare the top stories in news broadcasts here in Russia and on any of the European channels.
When you take a glance at what’s on TV, you get the impression that Russia is unable to pull itself out of a deep and limitless mourning. In memory of Soviet times, you keep expecting to see Swan Lake, which was invariably danced on our screens in honor of the latest deceased General Secretary. When you catch yourself making a comparison like this, you can’t avoid asking the question—the Patriarch isn’t the General Secretary or the head of state, is he? The church is a voluntary social organization. Why must the entire country plunge into mourning over the death of the head of a social organization? According to official statistics, only 4% of our citizens are active church members. For the rest of the faithful, the church is more a nod to tradition. But if you turn on the TV, you get the sense that we live in an absolute theocracy, and that, except for shipments of icons and holy relics from one worship site to another, nothing else is happening in our country. So certainly when Alexy dies, everyone is obliged to consider it a matter of personal grief. It is a good thing, at least, that the throngs of mourners didn’t crush each other, as happened when Stalin died.
The death of the head of the country’s dominant confession is, undoubtedly, an important public event, and one would very much hope that it occasioned a discussion of serious questions. For example, when Alexy became head of the Church in the Soviet Union’s most problematic region, Estonia, could he have attained such ecclesiastical heights without closely collaborating with the competent organs? Particularly cynical citizens are already quietly humming to themselves Alla Puchageva’s song: “Oh, what a man he was, a genuine colonel!” Or what do the duty-free import of alcohol and cigarettes, which the Church got rich off in the nineties, have to do with Christian values? We could also discuss whether absolutely all the money collected (practically by means of a state racket) from the entire country was used for the reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, in which the funeral of the deceased is being held with such solemnity. Or was there enough money to build a whole town’s worth of Christ the Saviors? But instead of answers to these and many other questions, we are presented with a reality show that practically turns the intimate matter of a man’s death and the personal grief of his family and friends into a serial the likes of Behind the Glass.
Against the backdrop of the desire to hastily canonize Alexy, Russian commentaries on the events in Greece triggered by the tragic death of a teenager struck down by a police bullet are telling. The entire analysis offered by state-controlled journalism boils down to two messages: “They’re too fussy there” and “They’ve gone mad, making such a ruckus over the death of some kid.” Only these commentaries don’t work even as captions to pictures from the Greek revolution. Can you be “too fussy” while also putting yourself in the path of police water cannons and tear gas? If Greek youth are too fussy, then why did the entire country support their demands by declaring a general strike? Or what, did the country itself go mad and collectively decide to be too fussy?
Even the contrast between Russian spirituality and western dissolution that has become our official dogma doesn’t work in this case. Greece is also an Orthodox country, and it is so imbued with the principles of precisely Orthodox Christianity that it could serve as an example even for Russian zealots.
Since we don’t have an official version, let’s try ourselves to explain why there are such different attitudes in Russia and Europe not only to life, but also to death.
In Russia, it is a person’s official status that matters. The higher he has ascended the hierarchy, the more he is respected and, as we now see, the more actively he is nominated for sainthood. In Russia, one becomes a saint by virtue of one’s office, and the wait for the new patriarch resembles the expectation of a new saint. The newspapers are just brimming with headlines like “In Expectation of a New Spiritual Father.” Moreover, these aren’t church-controlled or even religious newspapers, but the most secular newspapers and even tabloids. When people become parents by force, it’s a bad sign. For some reason, I think that each person can decide for himself, if nothing else, who his fathers are, spiritual and otherwise.
According to state doctrine, power is infallible and ringed with a halo of absolute intrinsic value. Those who have attained the highest rank in the power system immediately become fathers of the nation and saints by virtue of their status. We follow precisely the rules of Byzantium, where each new emperor automatically became a saint. This doctrine cannot account for the fact that the death of an ordinary teenager would become a national event, that five thousand people would come to his funeral without being prompted by any advertising whatsoever or round-the-clock reports on TV. In Russia, personal initiative must be sanctioned: it must have state support and be comprehensively covered in the mass media. Only then we do end up with the “well-organized spontaneous outpouring of grief on the part of every Russian.” During Alexy’s funeral, downtown Moscow was blocked off; even the kiosks were closed. Walking the empty streets, unable to buy even a bottle of water, I wondered why I was obliged to suffer because of the death of a man with whom I had nothing to do. In Greece, people suffer inconveniences so that reforms which negatively impact the majority of citizens are repealed. In order to achieve this goal, one can even endure rioting on the streets. But why suffer for a TV show entitled Death of the Patriarch? No, it is better to quickly switch the TV to any non-Russian channel (if, of course, you have access to one) or throw out your TV set altogether.